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When commuters pass by on W. North Avenue, the stately Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church looks precisely the opposite of what most might expect a Unitarian Church to look like.
With its Gothic features, proud steeple and soot-darkened stone exterior, the church looks more like an old Lutheran or Methodist church with its traditional architecture than a “common home and fireside” where progressives of all walks — Buddhists, Atheists, Christians and Wiccans — fellowship on Sunday mornings.
But for nearly 100 years, the church has been the sole Unitarian church on the Northside.
On Feb. 7, the congregation will rededicate the building and commemorate its 100 year history.
The history of the church building is a story Donald Zeilman, the building’s steward and archivist, likes to tell. As an architect himself, Zeilman finds it quite interesting that the congregation, already quite progressive in the early 20th Century, chose a deliberate Gothic Revival style for their new building.
“During that time period, people expected churches to be Gothic, whether they were liturgical or not,” Zeilman said.
He said the Allegheny City architect, R. Maurice Trimble, might have been familiar with the auditorium seating style of the many local Presbyterian churches, which is why this one features non-Gothic, off-center aisles.
But it also might be a remnant of where the congregation first held its meetings — the Carnegie Music Hall, which is now the New Hazlett Theater.
A former Congregationalist minister serving in Manchester, Rev. Thomas Clayton began holding Unitarian meetings there in 1905 with the help of congregants and the leadership of the First Unitarian Church of Shadyside.
At first called the Second Unitarian Church, the new congregation decided to raise money to have their own building built.
The church board president, Dr. Robert Gilliford, secured a lot for $10,000 (what would amount to about $200,000 in today’s dollars) on W. North Avenue with his own money.
“He bought the lot and held it for a year until the church could buy it off him,” Zeilman said.
After Trimble submitted his drawings, builder J. M. Poorbaugh broke ground on the $15,000 project in July 1909.
The church was finished by late winter, so that the congregation could have their dedication service on February 6, 1910. Since Allegheny City had been annexed by Pittsburgh three years before, the church was named the North Side Unitarian Church. Many movement luminaries were in attendance, including Rev. Albert Dieffenbach, who was a signatory on the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933.
Within a week of the dedication, Rev. Clayton left the church and was replaced by Rev. Charles Snyder.
Snyder was key in leading the congregation toward its long history of progressive activism, which in those days was championing suffrage and socialist issues.
Zeilman said the whole Unitarian movement took a Humanist turn in the mid-20th century before uniting with the Universalist denomination in the 1960s to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.
In light of its forward-looking history, on Feb. 7, current Rev. David McFarland will present his sermon, Celebrating Our 200th Year in 2110.